Kenyan-Tanzanian Ethnic Group Charges Top Brand for Unauthorized Usage of ‘Maasai Print’

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The Maasai, (Kenyan English: [maˈsaːɪ]), nearly 2 million individuals of a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

The trademark wares of the Maasai red-checked prints and fine beadwork for which the Tanzania and southern Kenya-based people are well known for have been all over the runway – and in some cases, the road – for years.

The group’s signatures found their way onto shirts and trousers by Ralph Lauren, goods bearing Diane Von Furstenberg and Calvin Klein tags, and even on Land Rover cars.

In drawing on his childhood spent in Kenya, British-born Jones looked to one of the most source-identifying elements of the Maasai culture, their red-checkered prints. And he was not alone in doing so.

But not everyone was pleased. Of those that were not amused by the Africa-inspired collection are the Maasai’s

Unlike Taylor Swift’s name and Burberry’s checkered pattern, though, the Maasai’s name and print have long been treated as free-to-use. That stops now.

The problem: The Maasai never authorized any of these uses and the group has tired of brands – an estimated 1,000-plus companies, including a handful of multi-national giants, in recent years – “profiting at their expense.” And these profits, according to Light Years Intellectual Property, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that pioneers public interest intellectual property (“IP”) issues, are sizable; companies have sold billions of dollars of goods that make use of the Maasai’s IP.

Meanwhile, “nearly 80 percent of the Maasai population in Kenya and Tanzania are living below the poverty line.” 

Increasingly aware of others’ widespread unauthorized uses of their name and traditional prints, the Maasai leaders decided to take action. After coming together for a two-day presentation on IP a couple of years ago, the group has since embarked on a fight to claim their IP rights. The most immediate result came in the form of the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative, an entity “dedicated to reclaiming the Maasai ownership of its famous iconic cultural brand by enabling the Maasai tribe to take more control over their own IP.” 

More recently, however, Isaac Ole Tialolo, the chairman of the Maasai IP Initiative has enlisted legal counsel to help get multinational corporations to recognize the Maasai’s proprietary prints and trademark rights and to pay to license the marks when they want to use them in much the same way as companies must pay to use, say, Burberry’s name and iconic checkered print. For instance, this past spring, beauty giant Coty paid $225 million to Burberry for the right to use its name and checkered print – both of which are protected by trademark law – on a beauty and fragrance collection. 

With the help of Layton, the Maasai have struck their first deal. Koy Clothing, a United Kingdom-based retail company, has agreed to pay a license to the Maasai for garments that make use of Maasai-inspired designs.

As for which brand is next, the group has not said. Right now they are focusing on “talking to people” and educating them about their IP rights in hopes of creating partnerships, says Tialolo. But do not be fooled, “if they refuse to negotiate at the table,” he says, “we will have no option but to go to the courts.”

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